South Dakota: Badlands Hiking Guide
If you are heading out to explore the Badlands of South Dakota, the best way to see all the curious wonders is on foot. The best Badlands Hiking can be challenging for inexperienced hikers, but worth every step!
It’s no secret that we are obsessed with South Dakota, and rightfully so as this place is genuinely amazing. Hypnotizingly beautiful, the Badlands are a step back in time with rugged landscapes, hidden fossils, abundant wildlife, and the sheer proof that life can survive in the worst of conditions.
While there are many options for hikes in the Badlands, the majority of them are short and can be done in 1 day.
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Established in 1978, the Badlands National Park may not conform to everyone’s idea of beauty, but you can’t deny it’s an incredible place. The Badlands Wall is a massive natural barrier sculpted by water into massive pinnacles and gullies creating a dramatic scene in the prairies of South Dakota.
The Lakota tribe named these lands Mako Sica, which literally translates to “land bad” because of its layered rock formations and steep canyons making it challenging to farm here. We spent 3 beautiful days here and quickly fell in love with it.
If you are looking to stay in the park, you only have 1 option, Cedar Pass Lodge and Campground. We HIGHLY suggest reservations ahead of time. If you are tent camping or in an RV, you’ll be rewarded with sensational views of the Badlands Wall.
We suggest at least 2-3 full days in the park so you can explore and drive the north unit. We were there during COVID so the south unit was closed as it passes through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Practice “Leave No Trace”
If you’re unfamiliar with “Leave No Trace”, it means to keep the land as you found it. Don’t leave trash. Stay on the marked trails. Don’t feed/pet wildlife.
Sunscreen, layers, and hats
The sun and weather can be intense on hikes and shade isn’t always available. Always carry sunscreen with you. You’ll never catch us without it.
Water, water, water
Don’t underestimate how quickly the body can dehydrate on a hike, especially in desert like climates. We typically hike with our hydration bladders and suggest a minimum of 1 gallon per person, per day, depending on the length/difficulty of your hike(s). Even though most of the hikes are short in this Badlands Hiking Guide, we are VERY serious about taking water with you. Just do it!
For more tips and what to buy, read our Packing for a Day Hike guide. We’ve included all the essentials you might need, no matter what type of weather/hike you are planning for.
Map of Badlands Hikes
Click the interactive map below!
HOW TO USE THIS MAP: To view the layers and see the names of the places on this map, click the tab in the top left corner. You can select the check marks to show or hide certain layers. If you select the icons on the map, you will get more information about the point of interest.
HOW TO SAVE THIS MAP: If you select the star icon next to the map name, you can save this map to your Google Maps account. To view it, open Google Maps in desktop or on your phone, select the menu button, go to “Your Places,” scroll to the right to Maps, and you will see this map.
Any hike in the Badlands will reward you with views or up-close-and-personal exposure to the rock formations here. It’s important to note that there are two Badlands hiking dangers.
1 – The first is rattlesnakes – don’t mess around with these guys as they are lethal. They can hide under some of the boardwalks to cool off, so be sure to stay on the path.
2 – The second is high temperatures (and high winds). During the summer months, the heat index can rise quickly and if unprepared, you can quickly develop heat exhaustion. There are heat index flags throughout the park warning you so pay attention so you can enjoy all of your Badlands hiking excursions.
If you’re coming in from the North entrance, this will be your first stop with access to 3 separate, relatively easy trailheads – Door, Window and Notch. From the same parking lot, you can also access the Medicine Root Trail and Castle Trail. One parking lot, 5 separate Badlands hiking experiences. Bang for your buck!
The Door trail is a quick 0.4-mile (one-way) trail along a boardwalk that passes through a narrow opening in the Badlands Wall into a cluster of barren hills that resemble the landscape of a moon or a distant planet.
This trail can be extended onto the floor of the Badlands and we highly suggest following the markers to the trail’s end. You will definitely feel as though you are bouncing around on Mars. We did our best Matt Damon/Martian impression as we explored the Badlands floor. Be sure to wear good shoes as this trail, though not difficult, involves hopping and climbing on some rocks.
Directly down the way from the Door Trail, you’ll find the Window trail which is a 0.1-mile (one-way) paved trail that leads you to a natural window overlooking a deeply cut canyon.
The Notch Trail is about 1.5 miles round trip and leads you through the valley of a canyon until you reach a 50-rung rope ladder to transport you up along the canyon wall. Talk about taking this hike up a notch! From here, you’ll walk to an opening along the wall to an overlook of the southern prairie and badlands as well as the Pine Ridge Reservation below.
Going up this ladder isn’t so bad, but descending down the same ladder can be tricky. Take it slow, be sure of your footing before making your next move, and you’ll be just fine.
If you only have time for one trail, we highly suggest the Notch Trail. It’s our favorite and one badass Badland Hiking Adventure.
If the rope ladder has you worried, you can access a similar view from the Cliff Nature Shelf Trail (see more on that below). This Notch Trail hike did have some steep drop-offs and might not be the best for those with a fear of heights or small children (not a fear of small children, just if you’re traveling with small children!).
Medicine Root Trail
Medicine Root Trail is a 4.5-mile Badlands hiking loop that takes you through the interior of the badlands. The beginning of this trail involves a steep climb until you reach the plateau at which point it flattens out.
There is no shade on this trail, but you will enjoy full access to the landscape.
The Castle Trail is 5.4 miles (one-way) and is the longest maintained trail in the Badlands hiking system. Weaving through a maze of buttes, open prairie lands and gullies, this trail offers the most dynamic views of the Badlands.
For this Badlands hiking trek, you will need at least 3 liters of water, sunblock, hat, boots and other appropriate gear for hiking. At this trailhead, you will need to register via a small trail box.
Please be sure to use your real name and info. Should anything happen, this is how the rangers will find you.
Cliff Nature Self Trail
The Cliff Nature Shelf Trail is a 0.5-mile loop that offers relatively easy access to a raised view of the Badlands. This trail has a boardwalk for a portion of the hike and does involve a good bit of stairs, but the view is similar to the Notch Trail. If you go at sunrise, it’s possible to see deer grazing among the vegetation here.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
The Fossil Exhibit trail is a paved 0.25-mile trail that goes through an area dense with, you guessed it, fossils. In an effort to be transparent, these aren’t dinosaur bones, but very small casts of shells and other small insects along the trailside. Manage your expectations as it could be a let down if you were thinking dinosaur.
Prairie Wind Trail
The Prairie Wind Trail is a 150-foot boardwalk trail that features native prairie plants and wildflowers. It’s appropriately called the Prairie Wind Trail because you will feel the full force of the wind here in the open plains. Hang on to your hat!
Saddle Pass Trail
The Saddle Pass Trail is a 0.25-mile, moderately-strenuous climb as you scramble to get up the hillside. While this hike is definitely for a more experienced hiker, if you choose to do it, please take plenty of water and keep your hands free. We needed to use both hands to climb as well as support ourselves coming down.
This steep and tricky climb connects with the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Loop for an extended 4-mile hike. We saw several people slip and fall going down due to the loose rocks, gravel, and dirt so please watch your step.
Tired of all of the Badlands hiking?
While hiking in the Badlands is one of the main activities, there is so much that can be done in any National Park. If you are a National Park newbie (we were too at one point), read this guide here for the Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors to the U.S. National Parks.
A few other fun things to do in the Badlands:
Visit the Prairie Dog neighborhood
These adorable creatures have their own community along the Scenic Route and you can sit there for hours (or days if you’re Samantha).
Catch a sunset or sunrise
Doesn’t matter where you are in the park, the sun’s rays will shine across this vast landscape and change the colors of the jagged rock formations.
Watch the Bighorned sheep or buffalo roam near the Pinnacles Entrance of the park.
Wall Drug Store
Yep, I know, you think we’ve lost it with this one, but a trip to the Badlands wouldn’t be complete without a visit here. This isn’t your average drug store. This 76,000-square foot store includes a drug store, gift shop, restaurant, coffee shop, emporium, arcade and paleontology store with fossil replicas. We told you it wasn’t your average drug store.
It opened back in 1931 and welcomes over 2 million visitors a year who are on their way to/from the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
In addition to being located just outside of the Badlands National Park, Wall Drug also had a unique and successful marketing campaign to get the word out. Signs all over the highways in South Dakota and neighboring states would advertise the drug store and its free ice water to thirsty travelers. Who knew free water was such a draw! Doughnuts, ice cream, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and 5-cent coffee are also big draws.
But this regional billboard advertising spree wasn’t the only way they got the word out. And we really mean, out! Owner Ted Hustead was vacationing in London and placed one of his way-finding signs in a London Underground train station. The sign informed the British commuters that Wall Drug was just 5,160 miles away and that he would send them free information about South Dakota if they wrote to him. Ted started getting numerous letters a day from Londoners and even landed an interview with BBC!
Today, these Wall Drug signs can be found all over the place, including London buses, the Paris Metro, Kenyan railroad stations, and in Amsterdam at a well-known gathering spot for American tourists.
Overall – South Dakota Badlands Hiking Guide
The Badlands National Park in South Dakota is such an incredible place. With the intense landscape, trekking through the Badlands hiking network should be prioritized for your trip so you can experience all this park has to offer.
If you are road tripping through SD, make sure it’s on your itinerary.
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We are Samantha & Chris and we are Boozing Abroad (literally). Together, we've traveled to over 40 states and 20 countries drinking local beers, wines and spirits along the way.
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Samantha and Chris fell in love with traveling together back in 2015. They met, married, and lived together in Richmond, VA for 7 years before becoming full-time travelers in 2020.
Along the way, they’ve traveled to over 40 U.S. states and 20 countries while drinking local beers, wines, and spirits during their journeys.
Join them as they share travel resources, stories, and guides based on their personal experiences drinking locally when traveling globally.